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Prof: Google Must Not Choose the Next President

Robert Epstein, a Clinton supporter in 2016, thinks Big Tech meddling is a risk. And, he says, he isn’t planning on suicide

It’s not every day that we hear a prominent academic announce that he is not suicidal. But human behavior specialist Robert Epstein lives in unusual times and faces two awkward dilemmas.

Okay, this is sort of funny…. It’s been suggested that I remind people that I AM NOT SUICIDAL!!! I love my life, wife, 3 awesome sons, 2 awesome daughters, my research, etc. etc. Everyone got that??? Thanks to @Pumped_4_Trump for the suggestion. pic.twitter.com/TDBztmO3ZN— Dr. Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) August 21, 2019

Bear with us; this is academia at its messiest.

A strong supporter of Hillary Clinton for U.S. President in 2016, Epstein came into possession of information that led him to conclude that Google had been manipulating search results in her favor.

In a public-access 2017 paper, Epstein and Ronald E. Robertson detailed some interesting findings on Google’s alleged manipulation of search engines to affect political outcomes:

3) Was the bias the same for all search engines? No. The level of pro-Clinton bias we found on Google (0.19) was more than twice as high as the level of pro-Clinton bias we found on Yahoo (0.09). The difference between these values was highly statistically significant (p < 0.001).

9) Issue: Could the pro-Clinton bias in search results have shifted votes to Mrs. Clinton? A comprehensive study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that biased search rankings can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more – up to 80% in some demographic groups. Extrapolating from the mathematics introduced in this report, in articles published in February 2016 and thereafter, the lead author of the PNAS study predicted that a pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results would, over time, shift at least 2.6 million votes to Clinton. She won the popular vote in the November election by 2,864,974 votes. Without the pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results, her win margin in the popular vote might have been negligible.

The researchers also found “ evidence of demographic targeting.” For example, search results seen by men were twice as likely to be pro-Clinton as those seen by women.

Their paper has attracted attention recently, probably due to Google insiders like Gregory Coppola and Zach Vorhies breaking rank and revealing various political biases in Google search.

Google claims it ain’t so but in any event, US President Donald Trump got hold of and responded to the expert and insider claims that Google would try to tamper with his reelection bid in 2020:

Wow, Report Just Out! Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election! This was put out by a Clinton supporter, not a Trump Supporter! Google should be sued. My victory was even bigger than thought! @JudicialWatch— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2019

Mr. Trump’s numbers are off but his news sense is on target. And Hillary Clinton hit back:

The debunked study you’re referring to was based on 21 undecided voters. For context that’s about half the number of people associated with your campaign who have been indicted. https://t.co/0zHnWvGjSv— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 19, 2019

Dr. Epstein was, of course, put out when he heard that his study had been “debunked” and he responded,

@HillaryClinton, whom I have strongly supported for many years, told blatant lies about me today. As a result, I have been subjected to widespread condemnation by mainstream media. I’m going to fight this. Stay tuned tomorrow for my first-ever twitter storm. pic.twitter.com/CrPHMycVBu— Dr. Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) August 20, 2019

“Debunked” is a problematic word, when used of an academic paper. It certainly doesn’t mean anything like “retracted.” In a political context, it most often means that ideological opponents have found a way to blunt the force of the findings, chiefly among their own supporters and perhaps for many “undecideds.”

Robert Epstein has made clear recently that his concern is whether Silicon Valley should use its near-monopoly power over search engines and social media to ensure Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 (or any other political outcome) by manipulating the information available to the lone voter in the booth:

“This is not a problem for conservatives. This is a problem for humanity,” the psychologist told PJ Media. “Who gave a handful of executives in Silicon Valley the right to decide what billions of people around the world can see and cannot see? Who gave them that power?”

Tyler O’Neil, “‘I AM NOT SUICIDAL,’ Says Man Who Exposed Hillary’s Ties to Google” at PJ Media (August 22, 2019)

Epstein’s “suicide” theme stems, as readers may well have guessed, from the coincidence that he has the same surname as accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, whose recent death while in federal custody has been ruled a suicide. Robert Epstein has no plans for joining him and plans to press on, trying to draw attention to the power of Big Tech and what it might mean for politics in democracies.

Along those lines, an article Epstein wrote last year at Hacker Noon is worth a read, to understand how Big Tech could affect an election and what he thinks could be done to prevent it:

What if, early in the morning on Election Day in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg had used Facebook to broadcast “go-out-and-vote” reminders just to supporters of Hillary Clinton? Extrapolating from Facebook’s own published data, that might have given Mrs. Clinton a boost of 450,000 votes or more, with no one but Mr. Zuckerberg and a few cronies knowing about the manipulation.

Because, like most Democrats, Mr. Zuckerberg was overconfident that day, I don’t believe he sent that message, but there is no way to know for sure, and there is certainly nothing to stop him from broadcasting election-tilting messages like that in the future — and not just in the U.S. but in countries around the world.

Do we have to wait for whistleblowers or warrants to learn, belatedly, about shenanigans of this sort, or is there a way to detect them as they occur? What kind of monitoring system would it take? Is there a way to look over the shoulders of internet users to see what overzealous tech companies are showing them on their screens?

This is the story of how my colleagues and I, working in the shadows of the internet, developed such a system and used it to monitor what Google, Bing and Yahoo were showing users in the months leading up to the 2016 election — a working prototype for a large-scale monitoring system that we hope will soon be protecting all of us 24 hours a day from the unfettered power of Big Tech.

Robert Epstein, “Taming Big Tech: The Case for Monitoring” at Hacker Noon (May 13, 2018)

One interesting facet of the controversy is that, at one time, the claims about Google’s political preferences were not even especially controversial:

An under-the-radar startup funded by billionaire Eric Schmidt has become a major technology vendor for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, underscoring the bonds between Silicon Valley and Democratic politics.

The Groundwork, according to Democratic campaign operatives and technologists, is part of efforts by Schmidt—the executive chairman of Google parent-company Alphabet—to ensure that Clinton has the engineering talent needed to win the election. And it is one of a series of quiet investments by Schmidt that recognize how modern political campaigns are run, with data analytics and digital outreach as vital ingredients that allow candidates to find, court, and turn out critical voter blocs.

But campaigns—lacking stock options and long-term job security—find it hard to attract the elite engineering talent that Facebook, Google, and countless startups rely on. That’s also part of the problem that Schmidt and the Groundwork are helping Clinton’s team to solve.

Adam Pasick & Tim Fernholz, “The stealthy, Eric Schmidt-backed startup that’s working to put Hillary Clinton in the White House” at Quartz (October 9, 2015)

Pasick and Fernholz go on to speak about the “shrinking distance between Google and the Democratic Party” and the “technology that helped re-elect Obama.”

Ah, a story lies in that last bit! As Gary Smith explained in a recent podcast at Mind Matters News, “When Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gave speeches, tens of thousands of people showed up and yelled and screamed and were excited. And when Hillary Clinton gave a speech, a couple of hundred people would show up and sit politely. And you couldn’t put that in a computer.” Barack Obama had, of course, been a charismatic candidate too—but one suspects that the computer hadn’t even noticed that element in the two-time winner’s success.

The results of the US 2016 election were a surprise to many pundits because technologies they had deemed very reliable, including trademark polling techniques, failed to predict the results. As another election looms, we can be sure of charges and counter-charges of Big Tech manipulation, some of which may prove well-founded.


Note: Prof. Epstein kindly noted our Mind Matters News article and tweeted:

Fabulous article by @itsdesign: “Prof [that’s me]: #Google Must Not Choose the Next President.” 1 problem: I never claimed that Google “manipulated” the 2016 election. I’ve simply reported the significant level of pro-Clinton bias in their search results. https://t.co/dnfKoHSOLq— Dr. Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) August 25, 2019

We apologize for any misunderstanding as to how to characterize search engine policies. It is a new area.

Further reading on search engine manipulation: Whistleblower says Google called police to do a “wellness check” on him. He can be seen doing a perp walk on the sidewalk in front of his house on the video (some portions transcribed here). In the documents Vorhies unearthed, Google seemed to be “intending to scope the information landscape so that they could create their own version of what was objectively true.”

What others are saying about the new Google insider’s revelations. The documents’ authenticity is not in dispute. What to do about them is another matter (Zach Vorhies)

Is Google a cult? Or does it just act that way? Project Veritas announces that a new rebel Googler has sent nearly 1000 documents on algorithm bias to the DOJ. While we prepare a news story on Zach Vorhies’ revelations, it may be worth asking why one of the world’s largest companies has developed what appears to be the atmosphere of a political cult.

and

Google engineer reveals search engine bias. He found Google pretty neutral in 2014; the bias started with the US 2016 election (Gregory Coppola)

See also: The US 2016 election: Why Big Data failed . In the aftermath, a Democratic pollster considered it “malpractice” to rely more on the machine than on Electoral College numbers. Bill Clinton reportedly threw his phone out a window in frustration over this tendency.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Prof: Google Must Not Choose the Next President